LIKE MANY scholars of modernism, I’m often asked two questions: What is modernism? And why is modernist studies, it seems, all the rage right now? I don’t have a good, succinct answer to either question — and I’ve no doubt frustrated plenty of friends because of that — but the reasons why I don’t are pretty telling.

There’s a familiar response to the question of what modernism is — dense and difficult language, myth and allusion, formal experimentation, and so on — and I regularly use it when introducing the term to undergraduates. But this answer feels rather disingenuous: that sense of the term cohered and reigned only for a small, recent window of time in a history of “modernism” that dates back more than a millennium. Which is to say, unlike fields marked by the relatively neater boundaries of centuries, nations, or languages, modernist studies, for most of its roughly century-long academic history, has failed to form a consensus on the nature of its titular object. Every field loves to ponder its own shifting borders, but how would I feel if I asked a colleague in postcolonial literature or in African-American studies to sketch her field for me, and she responded, “Well, it’s complicated, so let me just fall back on what people more or less agreed on a half-century ago”?